Retro Tech Spotlight: Car Turntables

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at record turntables made for automotive use.

She might be British, but she is certainly NOT your Auntie Beeb.

That’s right, not rotating platforms for displaying automobiles. Actual record turntables for vehicles. This was a thing.

Up until the mid-’50s, if you wanted to listen to music in your car, your only option short of having your cousin Billy play banjo in the backseat was to listen to the car radio. But in 1956, Chrysler came up with the wise idea of putting a turntable in an automobile. Actually, it was a fella named Peter Goldmark, head of CBS labs, who had previously invented LPs and is credited as having developed modern color television broadcasting, so hey, the guy had a strong batting average.

The trick was to make it compact enough to fit in a car, so Goldmark used 7″ records, but cut the records at 16-2/3 RPM, half the speed of an LP. In this way, he could fit a half hour or so of music on a single side of vinyl. Tests proved the product to be fairly durable in moderate road conditions, and so Chrysler started selling the Highway Hi-Fi as an option in 1956.

The Highway Hi-Fi, in living color no less.

Problems with this concept started popping up soon afterward. While the Highway Hi-Fi performed well in Chrysler vehicles, the company also sold them as an option in their lower-market Dodge and Plymouth vehicles, which offered a decidedly bumpier ride thanks to reduced shock absorption. Consequently, the Highway Hi-Fi skipped a lot more in the real world than it did in testing, and sales dropped in year two by more than 80 percent.

The other problem was that the unique discs required for play in the Highway Hi-Fi offered little variety. You couldn’t play your own 45s, and the 16-2/3s on offer ranged from show tunes to classical to Biblical readings, with very little for the rock ‘n’ roll set to enjoy. Chrysler killed the Highway Hi-Fi system in 1959.

Then in 1960, RCA introduced the Auto Victrola turntable, which could play a stack of 14 7″ 45s, for Chrysler vehicles. It wasn’t as inherently stable a system as the Highway Hi-Fi (i.e. it was even MORE prone to skipping), but it was a great little number to have in your car if you were going to go parking up on Lovers Leap.

Much like the car CD players that would follow a generation later, the Auto Victrola was front loading. You just grabbed a stack of singles, put them in and commence heavy petting.

Yeah, like that pothole’s not gonna cause a scratch. Believe that and I’ve got a bridge to sell you. It comes right before the final chorus. Ohhhhh. Can I get a rim shot? Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Please tip your servers generously.

In the UK, the Brits were trying to figure out an automotive gramophone solution of their own. What they came up with was the Phillips Auto Mignon, which was successful enough that it eventually made its way across the pond and was sold as the Norelco Auto Mignon. Unlike the RCA Auto Victrola, it was a single-record player, but it had the best reputation of the three in terms of road reliability (i.e. not skipping while driving). It’s the one you most commonly see in historical pics of celebrities with record players in cars (There’s George Harrison! There’s Muhammad Ali!).

I am the greatest deejay of all TIIIIIIME!

Though the Auto Victrola proved to be even more short-lived as its immediate predecessor (it was discontinued in 1962), the Auto Mignon enjoyed a relatively decent lifespan, from 1958 until 1970. By then, 4-track and then 8-track tapes had become the format of choice in the automotive sector, with “compact cassette” tapes emerging as the hot newcomer to be watched. Thanks to this, it’s the Auto Mignon that’s the easiest to find nowadays on the second-hand market, if you’re in the mood to take your singles collection for a spin.